Theater Creatives On The Needs Of The Industry


In a Sundance Institute survey, the Institute has released a new study that diagnoses the state of the theater industry and imagines its future, with input from more than 75 of the field's most influential artists, leaders, donors, and administrators, as Broadway returns to business and live performances resume across the country. 

“Emerging From the Cave: Reimagining Our Future in Theater and Live Performance,” released Wednesday and available on a dedicated website, gathers the thoughts, ideas, and proposed solutions from a diverse group of creatives, including Lynn Nottage, Michael R. 

Jackson, Suzan-Lori Parks, Robert O'Hara, Ty Defoe, and Shaina Taub; artistic directors Maria Goyanes, Jim Nicola, and Nataki Garrett; and artistic directors Maria Goyanes, Jim Jesse Cameron Alick, a veteran dramaturg at the Public Theater who was just named assistant creative director of Off Broadway's Vineyard Theater, led the research. 

The research, which began in January, was intended as an internal document to aid Sundance in exploring new versions of the organization's well-known theatrical development initiatives. 

On the latest edition of Stagecraft, Variety's theatrical podcast, Alick says, "But when I spoke with folks, we simply began talking about everything." 

“We began talking about the rise of Black Lives Matter, the theatrical industry in general, how we pay our artists, and who should be in charge.” 

Alick noticed that the same issues and themes emerged throughout his hour-long virtual one-on-one conversations with the study's 76 participants. 

Alick remarked, "It really made me think, well, we're on the same page." “It was a wonderful thing to have literally dozens of individuals talking to me about the same issue and giving up comparable answers to that problem.” Discussions centered on four topics in the study's results. 

One suggestion was to decentralize power hierarchies in the field in favor of shared or circular leadership systems, similar to those recently implemented at the Public Theater (where an artistic team weighs in on all creative choices) and the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia (led by a rotating group of artistic directors). 

Other hot topics were holistic artist support, which entails paying artists more and keeping them in paid jobs; and what's next for digital theater, which attendees felt is likely to stay around and develop as creatives and businesses experiment with live/digital hybrid models. 

“Field ideation,” or the activity of talking about large ideas, was recognized as the survey's fourth major topic by Alick. 

Alick said, “Theater and live performance require a place for thinking and conversation.” “We don't have the capacity to have a good discussion right now. 

Our discussions get heated. Leadership and individuals in institutions often clam up and clench their fists, indicating that they are very concerned. 

In the field, there's a lot of dread and uncertainty, and we need to find out how to communicate with each other.

According to Alick, the entire report was about 150 pages long. There's a video and a presentation on the study's results on, in addition to the gathered interviews. 

Sundance Institute CEO Keri Putnam stated, 

"We are starting a discussion that we hope artists, funders, and organizations will continue in order to stimulate new forms of support." 

“We recognize that some of these problems are beyond the scope of arts groups alone to address. In fact, we believe that many of the answers must come from sources other than institutions.”

COVID Expert On Broadway Discusses Returning To Theaters Safely.

It's the issue on everyone's mind on Broadway right now: 
How can we all — cast, staff, and spectators — return to theaters safely as the delta variant spreads just as plays are getting back up and running? 

There is no one solution to that issue, according to epidemiologist and economist Dr. Blythe Adamson; rather, there are many distinct responses that may be blended successfully for any particular production. 

On the latest edition of Variety's theatrical podcast "Stagecraft," Adamson says, "There isn't one method that everyone should be doing it." 

“It's the fact that we have a variety of tools that we can stack together.” 

Adamson has been a prominent voice on COVID guidelines for Broadway after serving on the White House COVID-19 task group and advising on a variety of large-scale, in-person events (including sports events). 

She's now working as a COVID consultant for "Pass Over," the first production to reopen after the closure (and the second after "Springsteen on Broadway"). 

Adamson was important in putting the safety procedures and safeguards in place for “Pass Over,” and she discussed some of the ideas she gained from her study and work in sports on the latest episode of “Stagecraft.” She, for example, is a big supporter of several times-per-week PCR testing. 

She also emphasized that everyone must be ready for change. 

She replied, "Your safety rules can't be strict." “You should have the ability and expectation that they will change over time as you gain more knowledge, as well as when the predominance in the community changes.” 

The production's dedicated COVID safety manager (a new job established post-lockdown and distinct from the state manager) oversees the "Pass Over" procedures, which go above and above the minimums needed by local laws and industry labor agreements. 

But, in Adamson's opinion, the additional care (and the associated expenses) are well worth it. 

She said, "We could do the very minimum and definitely have an epidemic in the cast." “What are the ramifications of doing the bare minimum? All of the income lost as a result of canceled concerts, and that's just the financial aspect. 

… At the end of the day, we really care about people's health. 

We want them to be in good health. 

We don't want individuals to be put in danger, become ill, or spread this to their family. 

There's also a human aspect to it.” “Protecting people has a high return on investment,” she said. 

Adamson also addressed the process of working out acceptable safety measures in the frequently unique settings of Broadway on the most recent episode of "Stagecraft." 

“I'd say things like, ‘Well, just open the dressing room windows,' and [a stage manager] would reply, ‘There are no dressing room windows!' They're all packed into a small, tiny area! There are no windows that can be opened!'  

Disney Theatrical's Global Relaunch


From “Aladdin” in Mexico City to “Frozen” in London to “The Lion King” in Tokyo — not to mention “Lion King” and “Aladdin” on Broadway — Disney Theatrical Productions is in the middle of launching nine new shows and reviving 14 others that were impacted by the epidemic. 

They're doing all of this in approximately seven months. To put it simply, that's a lot. 

The staff at Disney, on the other hand, saw a clear rationale in executing everything at once. 

On the latest edition of Stagecraft, Anne Quart, senior vice president of production and co-producer at Disney Theatrical, stated, "We could have stretched it out much farther, but we made the choice that at the core of what we do is people." “We need to go back to work with our performers, crew, musicians, and designers. 

The whole ecology must be lifted off the ground. 

There can't be one program that is more essential than the other. 

We must all work together to bring it up. 

We won't have an industry until we do this.” Quart and Thomas Schumacher, DTP's producer and president, spoke on Stagecraft to discuss how they manage scheduling, worldwide travel, remote work, and different foreign COVID-19 limitations to get these performances off the ground. 

Quart observed, "Everything has 500 stages that it didn't have before COVID." 

She went on to say, "Plus, each individual person inside the system has their own emotions." “How they feel about safety, about COVID, and how they feel in the place. 

You'll need to make space for it as well. 

So there are a lot of variables.” In addition, in the latest edition of Stagecraft, Following the reckoning that has taken place in the theater business and the entertainment industry at large over the past year, Quart and Schumacher addressed how Disney Theatrical is moving toward equality and racial justice. 

In terms of the company's equality and accessibility efforts, Schumacher stated, "We're deep into this discussion, and that implies a lifetime conversation." 

“When you look into this subject, you'll see that we weren't really following through on the commitment we made to ourselves, and it's been a wake-up call.” 

When it came to the theater industry, Schumacher acknowledged he didn't know what to anticipate in the near future, but he was extremely enthusiastic about the long-term possibilities. 

“How will the world be in a year's time? He said, "I honestly don't know." “However, I am sure that in the long run, this will be remembered as a period of transition. 

Some of it was really beneficial change that made us much better and more vibrant.” COVID Expert on Broadway Discusses Returning to Theaters Safely.

Diana the Musical Streaming on Netflix | NYC Plans to Reopen Broadway Theater


Diana: The Musical, which was supposed to debut on Broadway last March but was cancelled due to the coronavirus, has announced a Netflix premiere date as well as plans for a reopening on Broadway. The musical will be available on Netflix on October 1st. Previews will resume at the Longacre Theatre on Wednesday, December 1, awaiting government acceptance and accordance with health and safety standards. Opening night is scheduled for Thursday, December 16.

The musical features a book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro, and music and lyrics by David Bryan — the writers behind the Tony-winning musical Memphis. Olivier winner and Tony nominee Kelly Devine is the choreographer, and Tony winner Christopher Ashley directs.

Diana is voiced by Jeanna de Waal, with Prince Charles played by Roe Hartrampf, Camilla Parker Bowles played by Erin Davie, and Queen Elizabeth played by Judy Kaye, a two-time Tony Award winner. Zach Adkins, Tessa Alves, Ashley Andrews, and Austen are among the cast members. Andre Jordan, Gareth Keegan, Nathan Lucrezio, Toms Matos, Chris Medlin, Laura Stracko, and Bethany Ann Tesarck. Danielle Bohmer, Holly Ann Butler, Stephen Carrasco, Bruce Dow, Richard Gatta, Lauren E.J. Hamilton, Emma Hearn, Shaye B. Hopkins, Andre Jordan, Gareth Keegan, Nathan Lucrezio, Toms Matos, Chris Medlin, Laura Stracko

The following is how Diana is described: "The princess was thrown onto the international stage. Her exquisite looks and astonishing insecurity captivated the gossip papers. The world's most powerful dynasty is on the verge of collapse. This is the storey of the new era's most popular woman as she attempts to deal with a spotlight bigger than any the world has ever seen. She exceeded standards, stunned the royals, and conquered the hearts of her country by leading in her own voice. Diana, Princess of Wales, left an indelible mark on history."

The musical started previews on March 2, but due to the pandemic, performances were halted on March 12.

New York City Unveils Plan to Reopen Broadway, With Testing and Vaccination Centers for Theater Employees

Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City has announced the start of a campaign to reopen Broadway and off-Broadway by this fall. New York City will launch dedicated Covid-19 vaccine sites for the theatre community on Broadway in the coming weeks, as well as a mobile vaccination unit for off-Broadway staff. These locations will be run by veterans of the theatre industry. In addition, the city is partnering with the Broadway group to create strategies for crowd control before and after performances and will set up pop-up COVID-19 training sites near the main theatres.

De Blasio is also urging the state of New York to issue recommendations for theatre staff on how to wear masks and how to use evidence of vaccination or unfavorable tests to ensure that anyone will return to work and that crowds can return in the fall. Tony nominee André De Shields and Broadway veteran Telly Leung were among the performers who attended the mayor's press conference. In the coming weeks, more information about the proposal will be published. De Blasio said, "We will move heaven and earth to get Broadway alive."

Demand Adequate COVID-19 Relief for Performance Art


 The new Covid congressional relief bill aims to provide gig employees and freelancers with ongoing financial assistance, including those dramatists who do not apply for conventional unemployment relief. The COVID Relief Bill is over 5,600 pages long; there was not enough time for either the Assembly, the Senate, or the theatre world at large to examine it entirely.

In its present form, though, it has been stated that it provides provisions for relief such as:

  1. Extension of the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program to 5 April 2021 (starting in mid-March with phase-out), including an extension to 50 weeks of the qualifying period;
  2. An expansion of the salaried/hourly employers' Pandemic Unemployment Emergency Compensation (PEUC) scheme to April 5, 2021, after the claimant has expended his Federal Unemployment Benefits (UI);
  3. "Mixed earners" who were ineligible for PUA with 1099/W2 wages will receive a $100 weekly incentive for the length of their state UI/PEUC benefits;
  4. And all unemployment applicants (State UI, PUA, PEUC) will receive an additional $300 a week from 26 December 2020 to 14 March 2021.

The proposed bill would also ensure that the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities remain federally funded for another year. An appropriation of $167.5 million will be earned from each agency, which is $5.25 million higher than the amount adopted in 2020. This relief bill contains language that would allow grant funds that were appropriated for operational costs in both 2019 and 2020 to be used. Another round of the Paycheck Security Program (PPP) and the bipartisan Save Our Stages Act are both scheduled to be included in this bill. As part of Congress' overall $900 billion relief program, Save Our Stages will offer nearly $15 billion in federal relief to entertainment centers, including concert halls and theater operators.

The Save our Stages grant scheme will contain the following terms:

  1. Using a full-time comparable estimate, $2 billion in overall funds would be allocated for grants to companies with 50 or less workers.
  2. In 2019, candidates may measure their grant volume based on 45 percent of the received income of an individual.
  3. Net grants earned from a qualifying agency per beneficiary are capped at $10 million.
  4. Grants may be used from 1 March 2020 to 31 December 2021 for expenses incurred (and supplemental grants may be used from March 1, 2020 to June 30, 2022).
  5. Payroll, including fees to independent contractors, covers allowable expenses; rent; fixed costs such as mortgage and interest payments; as well as repair, administrative and other expenses.

For the grants, theatres meeting the following requirements would be eligible to apply:

  1. Theatres may qualify to apply, even though their performance space is not owned by them. "Operators of live performing arts organizations" are clearly eligible and are defined as a person or company that "organizes, promotes, produces, manages or hosts live concerts, comedy shows, theatrical productions, other performing artist events as a principal business activity."
  2. For-profit and non-profit candidates, as well as independent owners of motion picture theatres, museum operators, and talent members, are given eligibility.
  3. In order to continue to apply, applicants must show a minimum 25 percent reduction in gross earned revenue in one calendar quarter of 2020 relative to the same quarter in 2019.
  4. An borrower may have obtained a forgivable PPP loan in 2020, but must consider whether to apply for an SOS grant or to apply for a second PPP loan after signing into law the new bill.
  5. Eligible applicants must apply a certificate in good faith specifying that "the uncertainty of current economic conditions makes necessary the grant to support the ongoing operations," and that those applicants must comply with the provisions that the beneficiary "will not abrogate existing collective bargaining agreements" and "will remain neutral in any union organizing effort."

Since March 2020, many theatres around the nation have been closed, and will remain closed for many more months to come. Live theatre will potentially not return until the fall of 2021, at the earliest, according to Dr. Fauci's estimates. "This bill gives [theatres] a fighting chance," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said on Sunday, December 20, during a congressional floor address. Hopefully, the latest Covid relief bill will prove to be a step forward, but we do have a lot of work to do to ensure that the theatre industry enjoys complete federal funding during this extraordinary period in American history that it urgently needs. In a landmark letter writing campaign to the new government, we are calling on DG representatives to support us.

FY21 Year-End Omnibus Provisions and COVID-19 Relief

In the coming weeks, more information about the timing of access to relief and specific eligibility requirements will be discussed in guidelines produced by the Small Business Administration, the U.S. Treasury Department, and other federal and state departments. As soon as more information is available, TCG will be offering more updates.

More than $900 billion in COVID-19 resources, along with $1.4 trillion in FY21 annual federal financing, will be available. The bill provides additional tools to fund arts groups, artists, and urban communities alongside funding for vaccination delivery and immediate relief payments.

The full text of the legislation amounts to nearly 5,600 pages. Below is an overview, with PDF page numbers for each section of the bill noted below:

Save Our Stages (begins p.2124): 

The Small Business Administration will implement a new $15 billion grant program dedicated to providing support for “shuttered venue operators” and will write the rules for how to administer the program within 10 days after the bill is signed into law.

Eligible entities:

  1. Theatres can qualify to apply, even if they do not own their performance space. “Live performing arts organization operators” are specifically eligible and are defined as an individual or entity that “as a principal business activity, organizes, promotes, produces, manages, or hosts live concerts, comedy shows, theatrical productions, other events by performing artists."
  2. Eligibility is offered to for-profit and nonprofit applicants, as well as independent motion picture theatre operators, museum operators, and talent representatives.
  3. Applicants must demonstrate a minimum 25% decline in gross earned revenue in one calendar quarter of 2020, compared to the same quarter in 2019, to qualify to apply.
  4. An applicant may have received a PPP forgivable loan in 2020, but must choose whether to seek an SOS grant or apply for a second PPP loan after the new bill is signed into law.


Grant amounts:

  1. Applicants will calculate their grant amount based on 45% of an entity's earned revenue in 2019.
  2. Total grants received by an eligible entity are capped at $10 million per recipient.
  3. After receiving an initial grant, qualifying applicants that are experiencing a 70% revenue decline as of April 1, 2021 can receive a supplemental grant equal to half of their initial grant award. Supplemental grant awards will only be awarded after applications received in the first 60 days of the program have been processed. 

Eligible costs:

Grants may be used for costs incurred from March 1, 2020 through December 31, 2021 (and supplemental grants may be used from March 1, 2020 to June 30, 2022).

Allowable expenses include payroll, including payments to independent contractors; rent; fixed costs like mortgage and debt payments; as well as maintenance expenses, administrative costs, and other expenses.

Priority period and non-priority reserve:

  1. $2 billion of overall funding will be reserved for grants to entities with 50 or fewer employees, using a full-time equivalent calculation.
  2. The program will include two priority application periods that may be difficult for theatres to access, due to ongoing contributed revenue received throughout the pandemic.
  3. The first 14 days will limit access to applicants that demonstrate a revenue decline of 90% or more from April 1 to December 31, 2020, compared to the same time period in 2019.
  4. The second 14 days will be limited to those with a revenue decline of 70% or more.
  5. Relief funds already accessed through the CARES act will not count as revenue for this calculation, and seasonal organizations will use an alternate time period for the comparison.
  6. At the request of nonprofit advocates, 20% of funds will be reserved for availability after the conclusion of the priority period.


Eligible applicants must submit a good faith certification that "the uncertainty of current economic conditions makes necessary the grant to support the ongoing operations," and certain applicants must abide by requirements that the recipient "will not abrogate existing collective bargaining agreements" and "will remain neutral in any union organizing effort."


Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) (begins p.2043): 

More than $280 billion in new PPP relief will be available, including a second opportunity to apply for forgivable loans, accessible through March 31, 2021. The SBA is directed to issue complete guidelines within 10 days after passage for implementing the next phase of PPP, which will include important details.


Eligible expenses:

PPP allowable expenses are expanded to include software and computing costs associated with moving business services and operations online, and the cost of personal protective equipment and other expenses required for meeting public health and safety orders from March 1, 2020 to the end of the national emergency declaration.

This expansion applies to prior PPP loans that have not yet been forgiven, as well as new PPP loans.

Loan forgiveness (begins p.2043; 2055; 4929):

The bill maintains the current requirement that 60% of costs be attributed to payroll in order to achieve full loan forgiveness.

The prior requirement that borrowers deduct an Economic Injury Disaster Loan amount from their forgivable PPP loan amount has been repealed.

Borrowers will be eligible for loan forgiveness equal to the amount of allowable costs spent during a period of their choosing, between 8 and 24 weeks following the origination date of the loan. 

The SBA will rapidly set in place a new streamlined loan forgiveness process for borrowers with loans of $150,000 and under.

Second round (begins p.2064):

Forgivable loans of up to $2 million will be available to employers with a workforce that does not exceed 300 employees and that can demonstrate at least a 25% gross receipts decline in any quarter of 2020, compared to 2019. For nonprofits, gross receipts are defined as under the terms of the Form 990.

As with the first round of PPP, loan amounts equal 2.5 times average monthly payroll costs.

Employee Retention Tax Credits (ERTC) (begins p.4927): 

The Employee Retention Tax Credits (ERTC) will be extended through July 1, 2021 and significantly expanded, raising the credit from 50% to 70% of qualified wages. The value of the credit will increase from up to $10,000 in wages/year to $10,000 in wages/quarter per employee for the first two quarters of 2021, amounting to up to $14,000 in refundable payroll tax credits per employee. Employers that receive Paycheck Protection Program loans will qualify for the ERTC for wages that are not paid for with a forgivable PPP loan. The ERTC’s quarterly minimum 20% gross receipts decline requirement continues to be waived for “an employer whose trade or business operations are fully or partially suspended during a calendar quarter due to a governmental order.”

Charitable Giving Incentives (begins p.4951): 

The new universal charitable deduction for non-itemizers that was created under the CARES Act has been extended to apply throughout the 2021 tax year. Taxpayers who do not itemize deductions will once again be incentivized to give more, as single filers may take up to a $300 deduction for giving, and now joint filers who were limited to a $300 deduction in 2020 will be eligible for a $600 deduction for cash contributions in 2021. Also extended through 2021, the limitation on the percentage of Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) eligible for the charitable deduction has been lifted for those who itemize their tax returns, and the limit on deductions for corporate contributions is raised to 25% of taxable income.

Relief for Nonprofits Self-Insuring Unemployment Benefits (begins p.1933):

Many theatres  are among nonprofits that self-insure unemployment benefits rather than pay state unemployment taxes. Nonprofit liability was reduced by 50% under the CARES Act, and this form of relief is now extended through March 14, 2021.

Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and Compensation (begins p.1928): 

Pandemic Unemployment Assistance will be extended, providing federal unemployment benefits for self-employed and gig workers who are affected directly by the pandemic but are not typically eligible for state unemployment benefits. Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation benefits that expired earlier this year are reinstated at $300 per week, through March 14, 2021. An extra $100 per week will be available for workers who have both W-2 and self-employment income but whose base benefit calculation doesn’t take their self-employment into account.

Paid Sick and Family Leave (begins p.2033; 2438): 

The refundable payroll tax credits for paid sick and family leave that were established in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, are extended through March 31, 2021.

National Endowment for the Arts (begins p.869, 885): 

For FY21, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities each receive an appropriation of $167.5 million, $5.25 million more than the 2020 enacted levels. The bill includes language that permits grant funds appropriated this year and in fiscal years 2019 and 2020 to be used for operating expenses.

Education Funding (begins p.1859): 

The bill provides an $82 billion Education Stabilization Fund to support the educational needs of States, school districts, and institutions of higher education and the students they serve in response to coronavirus. The FY21 annual funding for the U.S. Department of Education’s Arts in Education program fund has been approved at $30.5 million.

Broadband Funding (begins p.2417): 

$7 billion for broadband, including funding for those struggling to afford internet access, $1 billion for broadband on tribal lands, and $300 million for rural broadband deployment.

Public Broadcasting (begins p.1074):

$475 million for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), in 2023 advance funding, an increase of $10 million above the 2020 enacted level. In addition, the bill includes $20 million for the interconnection system and system wide infrastructure, the same as the 2020 enacted level.

What I Learned From Coal: An Unexpected Diagnosis In A Pandemic by Jessica Burgess

An essay from Jessica Burgess. Jess is an award-winning director and producer who has created for clients such as MoMA, Jay-Z’s Life+Times, Vice, Gravity Media, and the art blog, Future Tongue. With a background in Art History, her work often focuses on the visual arts and contemporary artists.

In this piece, Jess reflects on receiving a cancer diagnosis and treatment, just as the coronavirus pandemic hit New York.

May 4, 2020

What I Learned from Coal: An Unexpected Diagnosis in a Pandemic by Jess Burgess

The first time someone says the word cancer in relation to you, it feels surreal and impersonal; not in the I-must-be-dreaming sense, but semantically. You hear the word “cancer,” usually with some qualifiers with it, like what stage, or which body part, or what the prognosis is, but your brain doesn’t really get past the cancer part. And the doctor won’t just come out and say, “You have cancer;” there’s always some roundabout statement about it. “We’ve gotten the results back and it’s not lymphoma.” Or, “It appears to have spread.” Or, “We will need to remove it quickly.”

Perhaps there is some professional reason for doctors to speak this way, but I’m not sure. No one likes to deliver bad news, even if it is part of your job description. So, for better or worse, you get to be the one to say the undeniably true thing, the thing that they don’t feel comfortable saying. At some point you will have to be the first person to speak those words. Someone will ask what happened at the doctors, or they will ask you what’s wrong. But more likely, the first time anyone says it out loud, you will be alone, and like naming a newly discovered species or realizing for the first time that you’re in love, you will stop and say to yourself, “I have cancer.”

At least that is what happened to me. It was March 16th and I was sitting in a cavernous Vietnamese restaurant in Union Square. A restaurant where I used to have lunch in between college classes, but was now empty save for me, my partner, the owner, and her pet chihuahua. We were all watching Mayor DeBlasio talk about the possibility of a city-wide shutdown. Every time he spoke the chihuahua would start yapping at the television, as if it were upset on behalf of its owner about the loss of business. After the waiter placed a steaming bowl of soup in front of me, the last meal I would have in a restaurant for the foreseeable future, I looked down at my lunch and said it. “I have cancer.” Happy fucking pandemic.
I have always been an avid researcher; information helps me to give shape to the things I can’t control. While I was waiting for test results, which is like sitting in Satan’s living room, my writing group had assigned an exercise in semiotics and deconstruction. We were to research a randomly assigned object, and directed to find meaning within its properties. Others were assigned things like lipstick or swing sets, things I had actually seen before in my lifetime, and I got coal. I’m not immune to the universe’s jokes, especially when I was getting the proverbial coal in my stocking in more ways than one. I knew almost nothing about coal, so I began with the basics.

The first thing I realized, and the thing that still shocks me is this: life is required to electrify the laptop that you are using to read this. That life was most likely coal, since electricity generation is the reason for 93% of coal extraction in the United States. Like all fossil fuels, the utility of coal comes from its carbon structure, but it’s the residue of life that creates its combustibility, and hence its importance to us. Diamonds and the graphite in your pencil are carbon, but their crystalline, undiluted structure make them impervious to heat; they are, and always were, mineral compounds. Coal was formed when the Mesozoic plants – ferns, pines, redwoods, and all the first flowering flora – succumbed to the swamps around them. Hundreds of millions of years of heat and pressure forced the oxygen from their dead mass, leaving behind carbon but also mercury, nitrogen, and most importantly sulfur, the reason coal burns so consistently. The rotten egg smell wafting from northern New Jersey is the remnants of prehistoric ferns, exacting their revenge on motorists on the Turnpike. 

Despite clean energy advances, the U.S. still relies heavily on coal and we still extract a lot of it – 755,000,000 tons of coal in 2018 according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration to be exact. We do this primarily through strip mining. The technique, which is actually a group of methods including the controversial and aptly named “mountaintop removal” process, was created as a safer practice, billed as both more efficient and much cheaper than traditional pit mining. Strip mining only works when the coal is close to the surface of the earth. Employing some of the heaviest machinery on the planet, the earth is peeled back layer by layer to expose the black mineral, which is blasted from the ground with explosives and collected in dump trucks. The “over burden,” or topsoil previously exfoliated from the earth, is laid back atop the broken ground and companies are supposed to plant vegetation in the wake of their Frankenstein machines. 
One night I dreamt that my neck was the earth. A bucket wheel excavator, one of those machines that’s larger than a cruise ship and looks like a fever dream from Mad Max, rolled into the space between my collar bones and excised all the unwholesome flesh beneath. 

The definition of cancer is “a disease caused by an uncontrolled division of abnormal cells in a part of the body.” It’s in the definition that you find the problems. Separately, accelerated growth and mutation of cells are merely dysfunctional, but together these two characteristics are lethal. Abnormal cells happen everywhere on your body; in fact, cell mutation is what created our species. The mutation that causes cancer also caused the cell in the hands of apes to defect and start acting like a thumb. Cancer cells act on the same line of evolutionary edicts, fighting to exist in a body with the same tenacity as early humans fought Neanderthals.

Like all evolutionary beasts, the important facet of cancer lurking behind the definition is time. The phase of cancer given during diagnosis is largely based on the amount of time it has been allowed to grow undetected. Thyroid cancer, at least the type I was diagnosed with, is incredibly slow growing; the tumor could have been there for up to ten years before it spread and could be felt in the side of my neck. But it didn’t start out that way. 

All tumors begin as a cell that has a mind of its own and doesn’t want to stop existing. “Adult cells are constantly under strict control,” Timothy Weill of Cambridge noted, “basically cancer is a loss of control of those cells.” Cancer cells are wild cards, they break all the rules, they can’t be stopped. I respect cancer, hell, I might even admire cancer – one little deviant cell that laid low, biding its time, waiting long enough to upend my whole life.

My doctor decided to rush surgery, fearing that non-emergency surgery would be cancelled for over a year because of the coronavirus; there was too much unknown to let this thing stay inside me for any longer than it needed to be. At 30 years old, they figured I was young and healthy enough to operate then get me out before Mount Sinai would become a respiratory ward, so they scheduled surgery for March 20. With only three days between diagnosis and surgery to prepare, I did what I could. 
My parents, at ages 65 and 68, couldn’t come into the city that was quickly becoming a hotbed for a disease that preyed on people over 60. Not that it would matter, no one could come into the hospital with me. During my surgery they would remove my entire thyroid, as well as the lymph node – where they expected the cancer had spread to – and all the surrounding lymph nodes in my neck. I would have a scar that would stretch from the left side of my neck, across my throat, hook a hard right upwards, and end just below my right ear. After surgery, I would be watched in the hospital for up to 48 hours with no visitors. 

So that was it. In 72 hours, they would remove a tumor I had for 10 years that took 2 months of testing to identify. There was no time to accept, or prepare, or even understand the gravity of my situation. 
Coal did have some personal relevance as it turned out. Like all the difficult and fascinating things about myself, it has to do with my southern roots. In Appalachia, “redneck” is a complicated term. Lots of folks take a sarcastic joy in using the term, calling their floating pontoons “redneck yacht clubs” and prompting a whole line of jokes. “If you’ve ever been too drunk to fish, you might be a redneck.” (Thank you, Jeff Foxworthy.) Others find it a shameful slur, akin to being called ignorant, uncivilized, or even illiterate. Like most people I know, I grew up thinking the term came from the sunburn gained from long hours working in the sun, but it turns out that isn’t true. 

My grandfather, growing up in a coal mining family in West Virginia, was proud of the name and with good reason. One story of how the term “redneck” began, as it turns out, was probably first coined over one hundred years ago in relation to coal miners. The peak of coal production in US history was before and during the First World War. Coal-miner veterans returned home to find that the coal companies had worked hard and fast to consolidate power, squeezing wages everywhere in the country. Conditions were so dangerous and pay so meager that after the war, the United Mine Workers of America began to gain ground as a legitimate force.

The main focal point of conflict was in West Virginia, where coal was the predominant industry. In 1920, the long-simmering tensions of “The Coal Wars” erupted into the single largest worker’s uprising in U.S. History at the Battle of Blair Mountain. A coalition of 10,000 white, black, and immigrant miners marched from Charleston to the headquarters of Logan County Coal. Armed with rifles, they demanded their rights to fair pay, safer working conditions, and the right to unionize. The miners wore red bandanas around their necks as a symbol of solidarity and quickly became known as “The Redneck Army.”

The ramshackle army was met by the Logan County sheriff, employed by the coal industry, and their 2,000 hired mercenaries. Private planes dropped bombs and mustard gas acquired from the First World War on the unionizers. After a month-long standoff, President Warren G. Harding called in the National Guard of West Virginia, which effectively dispersed the leftover uprisers. Almost 1,000 men were tried for a litany of charges, including murder, conspiracy to commit murder, and treason. Membership in the UMW plummeted from 50,000 to under 10,000.

My grandfather grew up outside of Logan County. I don’t know for sure if my great-grandparents were part of this rebellion, but I like to think they were rednecks in the original sense of the word. The coal miners went on to unionize in 1934.
One hundred men died in the Battle of Blair Mountain. People killing each other over the right to take the remnants of dead plants from the ground, or the right to not be killed while doing so. We are fallible, delicate beings. We don’t have the luxury of seeing the fullest reach of our actions.
The worst moments of my week-long run-in with cancer was the morning before the surgery. I woke up after a few hours of sleep and for one brief, lovely moment I thought I’d dreamed up the past 5 days – that I didn’t have cancer, that the world wasn’t shutting down piece by piece, that I could make coffee and worry about finishing the accounting for my last job. 

Then I remembered, New York City was shutting down, turning off the lights. Without the need for as much power, the coal had stopped burning somewhere upstate. And I did, in fact, have cancer. I was hours away from going into the hospital, alone. Alone because it was too dangerous for anyone to accompany me. Alone to wait in a mostly empty hospital, while nurses readied themselves for the hard weeks ahead

Then the interminable car ride to the hospital, readying myself to say goodbye to the one person who I would be able to see until the world started up again, knowing that in thirty minutes, now twenty, now ten, he would have to leave me. Standing on the precipice of all the wonderful and terrible facts of who I was, being made to fall into the unknowable blankness of who I would be. Would I still have a pretty neck? Would they cure me? Would it hurt? 

When they woke me up, I immediately began to have a panic attack, like my brain was just catching up to the trauma my body had just been through. But then, this internist named Josh held my hand and looked at me with his crystal blue eyes. “Don’t worry,” he said, “we have all the best drugs here.” And I thought, “Wow, he really fills out those scrubs well,” and I realized I was all right.
In fact, I was more than all right. The reason anyone even thought to test me was because of a lump you could feel in the right side of my throat. Further scans discovered another tumor, deep in my thyroid as well as an enlarged lymph node. During surgery, my surgeon discovered the tumor in my lymph node was much bigger than it had appeared in the scans, and that it was putting pressure on my carotid artery. When I asked my doctor what all of this meant, he said, “Well, you could have had a stroke, really at any time.” 

As it turns out, the huge, tangible lump in my throat wasn’t related to the thyroid cancer at all, even though I also had thyroid cancer. It was something called a vagal schwannoma, a relatively benign tumor of the nerve sheath that only causes problems when it grows in vital areas. Without the schwannoma, they would have never found the malignant tumor, possibly for another entire decade. Without the cancer, they would not have operated as quickly, and I could have had a stroke. I haven’t fully had time to understand the depth of this experience for me, but I do know that I am very lucky. Not least of all because I have years of puns ahead of me, since, technically, my life was saved by something called a vagal schwannoma.

Perhaps there’s no bigger significance to everything I learned about those little black lumps of fuel. Perhaps I just want to find meaning, but I don’t really know if that matters. I felt better learning about old, socialist coal miners in West Virginia and how many tons of coal China produces - which is, by the way, which 3,532,500,000 tons per year. There was nothing for me to do while I was waiting for test results, or my surgery date, or for the pain to go away, nothing except learn and think.

Perhaps, there is one concrete lesson I took away from my brief stint with cancer and researching coal. There is no way of knowing what the coronavirus will fundamentally shift in our global community, like coal miner unionists didn’t know what a “redneck” would one day symbolize, or that a single cell in my neck would revolt and try to end my life, or that the trees on the edge of a swamp 60 million years ago would be the fuel to build skyscrapers. There’s no way to know the specifics, but it will be destructive, and surprising, and, perhaps, a bit magical.  

By the way, getting coal in your stocking began as a gift, a little black lump for a poor family that had no better way to get warmth or light in the dark winters of Northern Europe. 


Jessica Burgess eats, dreams, and breathes stories. She's an award winning producer for agencies like Vice, Vaynermedia, and Gravity Media; co-owner of Little Animals Pictures, a Brooklyn-based production company; director of fever-dream content; teacher at Tisch School of the Arts; and podcast creator, essayist, and daily admirer of life's idiosyncrasies. She doesn't like to brag, but she can also make a mean meatloaf. Check out her southern-fried brainchildren here.

Baryshnikov Arts Center Free Parlor Broadcast: The Westerlies

Join us on Zoom for Parlor Broadcasts with The Westerlies, the acclaimed New York-based brass quartet known for "folk-like and composerly, lovely and intellectually rigorous” music (NPR Music).

In lieu of their originally scheduled BAC Salon concerts in the John Cage & Merce Cunningham Studio, the members of The Westerlies—childhood friends Riley Mulherkar (trumpet), Chloe Rowlands (trumpet), Andy Clausen (trombone), and Willem de Koch (trombone)—will broadcast live two evenings of conversation.

On May 1, the musicians will talk about the group’s origins and share songs from the newly released album "Wherein Lies the Good,” which incorporates folk music, gospel music, hymns, and original songs. On May 8, the members will discuss their influences, and share tracks showcasing the ensemble’s unique approach to adapting and arranging music from various sources, such as solo piano, voice and cello, and a cappella.

About the Artists

The Westerlies are a New York-based brass quartet comprised of childhood friends from Seattle: Riley Mulherkar and Chloe Rowlands on trumpet, and Andy Clausen and Willem de Koch on trombone.

Formed in 2011, the self-described “accidental brass quartet” takes its name from the prevailing winds that travel from the West to the East. The Westerlies explore jazz, roots, and chamber music influences to create the rarest of hybrids: music that is both "folk-like and composerly, lovely and intellectually rigorous” (NPR Music). Equally at home in concert halls and living rooms, The Westerlies navigate a wide array of venues and projects with the precision of a string quartet, the audacity of a rock band, and the charm of a family sing-along. 

The ensemble has produced two critically acclaimed albums: its 2014 debut, Wish the Children Would Come On Home: The Music of Wayne Horvitz (Songlines), and a 2016 double-CD of primarily original compositions, The Westerlies (Songlines). Sought-after collaborators, The Westerlies are also featured on recordings by Fleet Foxes (Nonesuch), Vieux Farka TourĂ© (Six Degrees Records), Common (Lakeshore), and Dave Douglas (Greenleaf). 

The Westerlies’ 2019-20 season includes engagements at Dumbarton Concerts, Soundings: New Music at the Nasher, Noe Valley Chamber Music, Earshot Jazz Festival, Mayo Performing Arts Center, and Choate Rosemary Hall. In addition, the ensemble is producing the second annual Westerlies Fest, February 3-9, 2020 in Seattle. Recent performances include the Norton Center for the Arts, the Moore Theatre, Shenandoah University, Purdue Convocations, the Oxford Performing Arts Center, Luther College, the Schubert Club, St. John’s University, and the University of Washington. 

The ensemble was featured with Fleet Foxes at Coachella, the Hollywood Bowl, the Greek Theatre Berkeley, Red Rocks, the Newport Folk Festival, Merriweather Post Pavilion, the Santa Fe Opera, Outside Lands in San Francisco, Panorama New York City, and the Pitchfork Music Festival.